We have a local gem hidden within a regional jewel. Lake Wissota State Park is home to the Karen Lea Nature Center also known as the outdoor classroom. The classroom came about a couple of decades ago when fifth grade teacher Mrs. Lea was awarded a Christa McAuliffe grant to help build it.
Last week, the same week as the 25th observance of the date of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, we received a call from the park naturalist asking us if we might help with a fourth grade field trip to the classroom.
Original funding requests for the program included monies for enough snowshoes and skis to outfit entire fourth and fifth grade classes for winter lessons. Fortunately, due to some savvy ordering and keen foresight of the naturalist, equipment has been kept in good supply, in repair, and up-to-date.
The appropriately named Mrs. Wise is the closest we will ever get to having a real-life Ms.Frizzle in our midst. She has enough energy and positive attitude to power a small city and she tries to share that ability with the kids by encouraging them to power the lights of the classroom by pedaling while they eat their lunch.
Over the years she has been conducting a survey of what kind of containers kids bring their lunches in, and over time has caused the curve of throw-away packaging (especially the dreaded "Lunchables") that was going sharply up to take a nose dive as children and their parents got the message that reusable is best.
Younger children get to go to the classroom in the fall and spring to hike along the lake and through the woods or on the path that leads around the beaver pond. Mrs. Wise tells the kids what kind of bugs, birds, plants, and scat they might see along the path as they walk. She tells them that if they really keep their eyes open they might even see rare moose poop. She gives an extra vigorous shake of her head that sends her large, brown pendant earrings swinging as she says this.
This day the kids had plenty of opportunity for practicing techniques for getting back on their feet after a fall, which allowed plenty of time for those who managed to stay upright to pause on the trail to examine interesting details of nature. The wildlife must have gone into hiding at the first sounds of wild exuberance ringing through the forest as not a single living creature was observed other than the titmice tempted into dining at the classroom birdfeeder.
Later they got the hang of it and had a great time. For most of the kids this was their first experience on skis and snowshoes. It is often the first time for many of the parents who chaperone as well. It is hard to imagine how many thousands of children have had a chance to try new things and experience the outdoors in a positive healthy way due to the legacy of Christa McAuliffe, the initiative of Mrs. Lea and the seemingling endless enthusiasm of Mrs. Wise.